Probably one of the most recognisable traditions of Saint Brigid’s feast is the “Brigid’s cross”. These were and still are traditionally made from either reeds or straw (but feel free to make them from paper or whatever is available to you. For examples of paper crosses see folklore.ie here). These were prepared on the eve of the feast in a highly ritualised manner. Depending on the region these vary in complexity. The simplest resembling the characteristic four armed Brigid’s cross. They were typically nailed to the thatch of the roof, over doors and in animal byres to protect from fire, lightning and fairy influence. To read more about the traditions of Saint Brigid’s day traditions, including more about the cross please see my article here .
Anne O’ Dowd’s book Straw, Hay and Rushes also has an excellent section on the crosses, including photos and information on the museum examples and types.
What you will need:
Fresh rushes (or straw)
Elastic bands or string
Trim the rushes to about 30 or 40 centimeters, depending on how big you want your cross. Pick the best rushes from the bunch.
Take a single rush for the center piece. Take a second rush and squeeze the middle and fold in half, like the photo below:
Now wrap this around the first rush like so:
Bend another rush and place it as follows (Making sure to always hold the center tight to stop it all unravelling):
Again, bend another rush as place going this direction:
Now, TURN THE CROSS ANTI-CLOCKWISE once. The rush you just placed that was facing to left should now be facing down. (If you think of a clock, it should go from 9 to 6). Now bend another rush and place it as follows:
Now every single time you add a rush, turn it anti-clockwise once and keep building up the pattern like below ( so add rush, turn, add rush, turn, add rush, turn until you are happy with the size of the cross):
Before placing the last piece, loosen a piece like the photo below and thread the final piece through it, placing it the same way you did the previous steps. Then pull the piece tight. This will hold the hold the whole thing together for you to tie off the ends, and will keep the pattern woven tighter:
It should now hold together for you to tie the ends off and trim:
Hopefully this was of help for you and you should now have your own Brigid’s cross to protect your home or animals. Don’t forget to follow on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore and feel free to leave pics of your completed crosses in the comments of the facebook post. Happy Saint Brigid’s Day!
In a country with an epithet like “The Land of Saints and Scholars”, one would expect to find a very rich and plentiful resource of religious beliefs when looking at the vast collection of manuscripts handed down to us from our forebearers. This is certainly the case and among these beliefs the medieval Irish seemed to have a special fondness towards the eschatological tradition. Within this tradition we find the subject of this current essay, the so called ‘seven heavens’. John Carey classes the ‘seven heavens’ as being the “most striking element in insular eschatological tradition”, a claim that is certainly hard to refute considering the fact that accounts of it can be found in manuscripts dating well into the 19th century. This popularity is especially striking considering the fact that many of the beliefs found therein had long since gone out of fashion. The main focus of these texts is on seven zones or heavens through which souls have to pass. Several of these ‘zones’ contain punishments of a purificatory nature, ultimately culminating in judgement before the divine.
This tradition of course does not originate in Ireland, nor is it limited to such. Carey argues for a Gnostic background for the tradition and although there are ten zones/heavens in many instances in the Coptic sources, they do in fact share a common denominator, the fact that these zones share the hell like torments that have a purifying effect on the souls involved. In the Irish sources though it is not common to connect the seven heavens with the seven known planets known at the time unlike what we see in, for example, the Egyptian sources where they often equate the seven heavens with the planetary bodies or the primeval week. The resemblance between the Irish, old English and Latin material pertaining to the seven heavens does at the very least point to the possibility of them all stemming from a common source. This theory of a common lost apocryphon can be argued for due to the schema relating to the passage of souls through the heavens and the remarkable similarities between the Irish, Old English and Latin sources. Each of these portrays the heavens as concentric with a gate or door to each entrance. The entrances of the first two of the seven heavens are guarded by 2 virgins and an archangel. Souls must pass through the zones facing obstacles such as fiery walls and streams with levels of time taken to pass through the obstacles being dependent on if the soul was righteous or a sinner. As they reach the 7th heaven they are subject to judgement by god with the sinners being eaten by a succession of twelve dragons until they are deposited into the devil’s mouth. By the time the tradition had evolved to the point of the more modern versions, such as in In Tenga Bithnua modern recension (hereafter TBNM) this description has become more graphic in terms of the dragons eating the soul and it being passed through the anus into the mouth of the next dragon. Also similar to the Seacht Neamha (hereafter SN), we see the use of classical names for rivers (such as Asceron, Styx etc.). This so-called ‘lost apocryphon’ of the seven heavens was proposed by Stephenson to have been derived from a mixture of the Greek version of the Gnostic Apocalypse of Paul and another apocalypse that was translated into Latin before reaching Ireland. This was more or less backed up by Carey although he views Pistis Sophia as being a better candidate over the Apocalypse of Paul. Whichever apocalypse informed it, it is clearly evident that there was indeed Coptic influence and it may be safely assumed that there were some now lost editions circulating that ultimately informed our own native insular seven heavens tradition.
In an Irish context we have a number of texts relating to the seven heavens that survive. As mentioned above these cover a large time period from the 12th century up until the 19th century. The primary texts relating to this tradition are the account of the seven heavens contained within Fís Adomnáin, ‘An Seacht Neamha’ in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum (hereafter LFF), and ‘In Tenga Bithnua’. The oldest account of the seven heavens that can be found in Ireland is contained within Fís Adomnáin (hereafter FA) and is found in Lebor na hUidre. This recension of FA has essentially the same framework as the Visio Santi Pauli but chooses to omit all the names of the doors and of the heavens. Also it would appear, according to Touati, that the FA seven heavens section could have been informed by the homily of the karlsruhe fragment which is Hiberno-Latin in origin and was very likely familiar to the author of FA.
Another Irish seven heavens text we are aware of is ‘In Tenga Bithnua’ (hereafter TBN). John Carey places the original composition of this to around the 9th century whereas Whitley Stokes had placed it to the 10th/11th century around the time of the crossover between old and middle Irish period. The popularity of this text can be seen from it being copied over many centuries, long after the belief systems contained within had become obsolete. There are numerous copies of this text extant in three recensions. The third recension, or modern recension (TBNM), can be found in 39 manuscripts, the oldest of which dates to the 15th century (this copy however does not have the seven heavens section ) and the latest of which are 18th and 19th cent. Of these later manuscripts twenty copies are from the 18th century and eighteen from the 19th century. The language in these recensions, in comparison to the others, has been modernised and due to this fact, can be dated to no earlier than the period in which they were written. Even though the language has been ‘updated’ as such, there are some similarities found there with phrases found in both SN and FA and while TBNM does not directly derive from them, it certainly shows influence from them. What is worth noting though is that in TBNM we see more attention paid to the names of the seven heavens unlike FA, with many of the names being similar to SN. Another development when looking at TBNM is that it is the only recension that features the ease of passage through the trials by the righteous and the prolonging of torments of the sinners that is in other seven heavens texts that is not evident in the first and second recensions of TBN.
So in conclusion we see that in the case of SN, TBN and FA that there are gates involving barring access to the heavens that would appear to be some sort of interface between the vertical and horizontal approach to the traditions. We also see virgins as guardians (only named in one instance) that have iron rods for scourging souls. And in some cases these heavens seem to be specifically concentric as opposed to ascent. In all cases these souls have to pass through various obstacles such as fiery rivers, walls etc, that increase in difficulty depending on the purity of the soul and the ultimate time needed to pass dependant on said purity. Each passes through these zones till they reach an antechamber of sorts in the sixth heaven and ultimately being judged by god himself in the seventh heaven. In all cases we also encounter twelve dragons who swallow the soul of those damned to hell, passing the soul from one to another till the damned soul is deposited into the jaws of the devil.
The remaining seven heavens text we find in Ireland is the An Seacht Neamha text found in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum . This is the only version of this text that we have available to us. Also in this manuscript we see a deliberate attempt to modernise the language possibly to make it more accessible to the readers of the 15th century. We see many parallels between SN and TBN in the fact that they both have very close descriptions of the heavens. Both describe seventy two rewards in the paradisal zones and seventy two punishments in the hell like zones but as well as its similarities it has its own unique elements that cannot be found elsewhere. These elements include the naming of the virgins found in the second heaven. This naming of the virgins can also be found in the Old English homily along with identical naming of doors which leads us to believe that both derive from the same source.
Bibliography ‘The End and Beyond: Medieval Irish Eschatology’, Carey, J.,Nic Cárthaigh, E., and Ó Dochartaigh, C. (eds.), 2 vols (Aberystwth,2014), vol.1
Carey, J.,’The King of Mysteries:Early Irish Religious Writings’, (Dublin, 2000)
Carey, J.,’The Seven Heavens and the Twelve Dragons in insular apocalyptic’, in McNamara, M. (ed.), Apocalyptic and Eschatological Heritage: The Middle East and Celtic Realms, (Dublin,2003)
Herbert, M.,’Medieval Collections of Ecclesiastical and Devotional Materials: Leabhar Breac, Liber Flavus Fergusiorum and the Book of Fenagh’ in B. Cunningham and S. Fitzpatrick (eds.), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin,2009)
Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983)
Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983) Stokes, W.,’The Evernew Tongue’, Eriú 2 (1905)
Social hierarchy was very much prevalent in early Irish society. You were either free (Saor) or unfree (Daor). Slaves obviously fall into the latter category and as a slave, you were considered an ambue (non-person) and had no protection against being killed or injured. The terms used in the texts are Mug for male slaves that were used for menial labour and Cumal for female slaves who were in turn used for household tasks. The Cumal was of great value, so much so that the term would later be used to denote a unit of currency or a specific size of land (1 milch cow = 3 Cumhal (female slave) = 1 ounce of silver). These slaves could be people obtained as debt slaves, prisoners of war from raids into other Tuatha (petty kingdoms), or prisoners from raids on Britain (the most famous captive of which being Saint Patrick himself) . Even more abhorrent is what we find in the law text Gúbretha Caratniad, which implies that children may have been sold into slavery by their parents. The motivation behind this can only be speculated at, but it doesn’t lessen how horrific it is.
Another law text, Di Astud Chirt acus Dlighid, tells us that it was seen as an anti-social act for a king to release slaves as it was believed that it would entail cosmic/supernatural retribution in the form of crops failing and milk drying up as such slaves were an integral part of the kings prosperity. However, the law texts also claim that the king should have a freed slave (having previously been held captive by a rival king) as part of their bodyguards. Runaway slaves (élúdach) could not avail of sanctuary and could not be protected by anyone, even if they were high status or Nemed (privileged, sacred). Slaves could be hurt or killed by their master with no repercussion and any attack on them by others resulted in compensation being paid to the master, not the slave. Next I will cover hostages, who were in most cases in a completely different league to slaves when it came to status.
The material below regarding hostages is taken from the lecture “Hostages in Medieval Ireland” given by PHD candidate Philip Healy on the 27th Feb 2020 at University College Cork.
When looking at the manuscripts, we have numerous mentions of hostages throughout the heroic literature, the law tracts and the annals, especially covering the periods between the 7th century to the 12th century. These hostages were given for a variety of different reasons including:
Suriety for legal cases
Submission to subordinate kings
To secure political agreement
The major differences we see between slaves and hostages was that they were not mistreated and there is evidence to suggest that they retained their status, enjoyed the hospitality of the king and had freedom of movement within the Tuatha (people would not typically have any legal rights outside their own kingdom). The legal text Críth Gabhlach tells us how forfeited hostages may be fettered but more often than not they enjoyed meals at the high table between the king and filidh or brithim . The Senchas Már tells us that hostage giving in legal disputes was commonplace among the upper classes (the high cost of default is another piece of evidence in regard to this).
Between the years 600-1000 we see no evidence of any hostages being harmed, however between 1000-1200 we see that five hostages were killed. The reason for this is likely due to a general increase in violence and social upheaval. During this period we see an increase in mutilations, castrations and blindings.
The terms used when referring to hostages depend on the period we are looking at: